Accused of not hanging up their jackets, two defendants giggled and squirmed in their seats like schoolgirls, which they were.
"How do you plead?" asked Leila Pearsall, 8, of Hamilton.
"Guilty," said the girls, also 8, who had the option of paying 50-cent fines or being brought up on charges. They were sentenced to 25 minutes of community service: cleaning the play room.
The setting was the Judicial Committee room at Arts & Ideas Sudbury School, also known as AI Sudbury. The 6-year-old alternative school, founded in Hamilton and operated as a democratic community managed by students and staff, moved this year to the old St. John's Episcopal Church at Kelly Avenue and South Street in Mount Washington.
With guidance from a full-time staff of four, including co-founder Caroline Chavasse, the school, which is affiliated with a network of 30 Sudbury schools worldwide and is modeled after the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., allows its 40 students to mete out gentle justice for transgressions ranging from messiness to harassment.
The school even has its own law book.
Students also help hire and fire the staff, and to some extent make their own hours and curriculum — or as Chavasse puts it, to "make the days as they choose."
The school has an operating budget of about $180,000 this year, and tuition is $5,625 per year, Chavasse said.
There are no traditional grade levels and there is no principal; the adults are simply "staff," and the students are known as "school meeting members," said Chavasse, a 51-year-old mother of two and a former Video Art professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
There are no grades given or state-mandated tests to take, because Arts & Ideas Sudbury is a church-exempt school that operates under the umbrella of a church organization, the Arcadian Fellowship, Chavasse said.
According to its website, http://www.aisudbury.com, "Arts & Ideas approaches schooling from the learner's point of view, turning conventional education on its head. We believe that children are the most motivated learners around and that learning happens as a glorious by-product of being human. It happens in an environment that is challenging, supportive and attuned to the idiosyncratic leaps and meanders of authentic exploration. Facts, dates, formulas and skills stick when there is interest and ownership. We recognize a wide variety of paths to knowing and learning."
AI Sudbury's goal is to instill "a peer culture" at a "kid-powered" school, where students from the equivalent of kindergarten to high school learn self-determination, responsibility and citizenship, building a capacity for life-long learning and achievement, according to the site.
" ... Students and teachers explore at their own pace, unhurried and free from an institutionalized curriculum," the website states.
Students participate in the Judicial Committee on a rotating basis — unless, of course, they are defendants — and must attend the announcements portion of a twice-weekly school meeting in the so-called "Great Room" of the church, with its own stained glass window.
"It's like a New England town hall meeting," Chavasse said.
The agenda for a March 20 school meeting included approval for the Hiring Committee to create a part-time staff position and start a candidate search; approval to spend $100 to make a large indoor/outdoor sign for the school; approval for a child to bring his pet, Snakey, to school for a day; and approval to tweak attendance rules.
"Anything can be changed at any time, if it passes in school meeting," Chavasse said.
The school places a lot of trust in students to make good decisions. They eat when they want to, for example, and students as young as Leila can walk to Mount Washington Village for lunch if accompanied by a student who is 10 or older. Leila said she likes to go to Whole Foods, Starbucks or a local cupcake shop.
When asked what she likes about the school, Leila replied with a grin, "I like everything about it."
So does Benah Stiewing, 16, of Roland Park, a veteran of Sudbury schools. She used to attend the Fairhaven Sudbury School in Upper Marlboro, which her parents co-founded.
"If I was in a conventional school, I would be in 10th grade," Stiewing said. "I like it. It's very different."
There is one thing she doesn't like, though. Everyone does a mid-afternoon chore; hers is to sweep the Great Room, the biggest room in the church.
"I hate my chore," Stiewing said, chatting in the front office with Chavasse and all-purpose staff member Ali Solonche, 27, of Charles Village, who saw a job listing about five years ago and never left.
"I basically create my own job," Solonche said, adding that she could be doing anything from tuition accounts to wrestling with a student.
"I have an idea of what I want to get done, but it doesn't have to happen in any particular order," she said.
The staff says Arts & Ideas Sudbury defies definition, though it has elements of Montessori, Waldorf, progressive and home schools. Staff and students work to dispel any notion that Sudbury is a free-for-all, stressing that the school is structured in its own way.
"When I tell people about the school, they see it as unorganized," said Matt Ellin, 15, of Mount Washington, who formerly attended the Baltimore Hebrew Academy. "I'm quick to correct them."
"It has its rhythm and structure. It just doesn't look the same," Chavasse said.
"They have all this time to figure out who they are and what they like," Solonche said. "They learn how to learn. It's not necessarily what they learn. They want to be there, in that class. They're not just going through the motions and getting the grades."
Coming from a non-traditional school with no grades will make students stand out when they apply to college, said Chavasse.
And she said, "They don't need me to tell them they're doing a good job. They know it. They own it."
And they own their mistakes. The little girls who didn't hang up their jackets had to do their community service on the spot.
"The play room could use a good clean," offered Chavasse, wearing her hat as "chore clerk."
The girls hugged each other, then ran upstairs to clean the room.
As a relatively new school, AI Sudbury hasn't had many local graduates or a chance to see how alumni would fare as college applicants.
But Cameron Murray, 17, of Columbia, this year's sole AI Sudbury graduate, is optimistic, saying he wants to study graphic design and photography and he is applying to the Maryland Institute College of Art, among other colleges.
"I like the freedom here, that you get to make your own decisions," Murray said. "It better prepares you for the world."